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Oswego County wants more nuclear power plants like this one on the shore of Lake Ontario (Source:  Wikipedia)
Oswego County wants more nuclear power plants like this one on the shore of Lake Ontario (Source: Wikipedia)

Japan crisis could derail North Country's nuclear dreams

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As we've been hearing through the morning, the nuclear crisis in Japan continues to spiral out of control.

Until this week, that country's safety record has been cited by nuclear power advocates who want to build more plants here in upstate New York.

Many local leaders say they still think a nuclear plant could safely boost the region's economy.

And New York Senator Chuck Schumer, speaking on "Meet the Press," said on Sunday that the unfolding catastrophe hasn't changed his mind about nuclear power.

"The bottom line is that we do have to free ourselves...from foreign oil in the other half of the globe," Schumer said.

"So I'm still willing to look at nuclear. As I've always said, it has to be done safely and carefully."

But supporters of nuclear power acknowledge that the disaster in Japan will make it far more difficult to gain approval for new projects in New York state any time soon.

Brian Mann has our special report.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Last month, when Congressman Chris Gibson held a town hall meeting in Queensbury, in Warren County, one of his big ideas for reviving the local economy was a plan to bring a new nuclear power plant and also a reprocessing facility for nuclear waste home to his district. 

 "If we can get access to more energy, this is something that’s going to help small businesses and American families," he said.

One after the other, people hurried to the microphone, eager to embrace the idea. 

"This is what we need.  I know it’s a difficult thing because there’s been so much opposition to this, but it can be done," said one local resident.

"We always applaud France and Japan for their clean energy.  And yet they get like 80 or 90 percent of their energy from nuclear sources.  So of course if they can do it, we should be able to do it."

The last couple of years people have been talking about a nuclear power renaissance – and local leaders across Upstate New York embraced the idea.

Officials in Massena called for a new plant to be built in their town, and the Oswego County legislature passed a resolution supporting construction of another nuclear generator on the short of Lake Ontario. 

But over the last four days, that political momentum ran smack into the nuclear catastrophe unfolding in Japan.

The crisis has nuclear supporters scrambling.  Congressman Gibson was scheduled to give a talk this week to a nuclear industry advocacy group.  Instead yesterday afternoon he held a press conference with a very different tone.

"I want this done and I want this done safely," the freshman Republican told reporters. 

"So what we need to do is learn from the experience in japan.  Before we go forward, we need to make sure that we understand what happened and incorporate any lessons learned."

Joe Gray, town supervisor in Massena and another strong nuclear advocate, sounded a similar cautious note.

"Well certainly it gives one pause.  When you look at the magnitude of the disaster there and all the other things they’re dealing with." 

Jim Steets, a spokesman for the company Entergy, which operates nuclear power plants in Oswego County and in Vermont, also acknowledged that the industry faces new questions.

"We feel awful for what Japan is dealing with ri ght but we’re also looking at it very closely to see what we can learn from it, to see what kind of parallels there might be for our own plants."

Still, all of the nuclear power advocates interviewed for this story said they believe America’s power plants are safe and that more facilities should be built.   

"We’re not interested in building a power plant with technology from the 1950s or the 1960s," pointed out Rep. Gibson.  "We want to have one with the state of the art 21st century technology."

But those who’ve raised questions and doubts about nuclear power in the past say they think the Japan crisis will stall any new nuclear development in Upstate New York.

 "Our bottom line is that it’s just such a risky proposition, it’s such a risky technology," said Jon Rosales, a professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton. 

 He says the political coalition supporting nuclear power – which included many green activists worried about carbon pollution and climate change – is finished.

"I think even the most ardent proponents, are now taking pause or at least thinking twice about it."

 That view was echoed by Mark Mahoney, with the Glens Falls Post Star.  He co-authored the newspaper’s lead editorial in January (see link) opposing construction of new nuclear plants.

He says the industry and its supporters are back to square one – in the same PR nightmare that followed Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

"They’re going to have to go back and recovincine some people that it’s a safe, viable  alternative.  People are just going to think twice and it’s going to take some convincing to get them back on track."

But with Upstate New York’s struggling economy and the hunger for low-cost energy sure to grow, proponents say there is still a future for nuclear power in the region.

Massena supervisor Joe Gray points to the big hydro dams on the St. Lawrence River and says people understand that every form of energy comes with risks.

"I mean God forbid that there was an earthquake in China and a hydro dam failed and thousands and thousands of people were impacted.  Would we want to shut down this hydro dam?  No."

 The future of the nuclear industry, in the US and here in Upstate New York could be decided in the next few days, as the scope of the disaster in Japan becomes more clear.

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